Find your next job fast at the Jan. 28 Virtual Career Fair. Register now.
Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at

Education Opinion

That’s Not Mainstreaming!

By Peter DeWitt — September 06, 2015 5 min read

Today’s guest post is written by Jeffrey Benson. He has worked in almost every school context in his 35 years as an educator, from elementary school through graduate programs, and is a fantastic writer.

I am old enough to have been there at the beginning of special education, and fortunately, I completely missed the euphemism of “special.” I knew schools were filled with students who were disengaged, abused, overwhelmed, scared, with quirky learning difficulties that would not go away simply by avoiding the required reading and writing and math curricula. I was fooled by the person who compassionately thought to call these kids “special.” I entered the field because I was sure that we teachers were the ones who were supposed to be special--special educators.

And we were. My graduate courses were filled with energetic, passionate, and articulate teachers. This was not a group of “regular” people. We didn’t know exactly how we would take our often radical and experimental approaches into traditional schools--and there was no doubt that my peers were intent on not only helping their own students, but also on changing the rigid structures that had historically excluded far too many children from being well-served. We were excited to have a mission, both grand and rooted in a daily practice.

So it saddens me greatly to see the ways that special educators have been constrained; we pushed against those rigid structures and those structures held. In what seems to be a frenzy of mainstreaming--which as far as I can tell is being driven more by economics than by the urge for social justice--resource rooms and sub-separate programs that could robustly address the particular needs of their students are being closed down. Special educators are being reduced to glorified assistant teachers, rushing around the now over-crowded regular education classes, hoping to re-explain to a handful of confused kids exactly what “the teacher” wants them to do now.

There are scant opportunities for the special educator, limited to supporting the mainstream teacher, to do anything really special; e.g. to develop a hands-on multi-day integrated unit designed especially for the idiosyncratic interests of the neediest students, so that they can not only hang in through the struggle to skill up, but find themselves in the world as central players; to give the kids a break from the relentless pacing guides and test preparation, when it is clear that the emotional overload of school work has reached a critical threshold; to modify the daily schedule for a particular student so that he gets an extra period with the physical education teacher; to have the authority to stop the lesson because brain research shows that we have to switch mental gears periodically.

The issue is one of professional authority. Educators have the authority to be special when they have their own classrooms, when they design the curriculum, and when they lead lessons. They need that authority in order to take the best care of the students who most need their unique skills of observation, task analysis, and modification. The authority to be special educators has not been transferred to the mainstream, only the students.

I fully support the notion that mainstreaming means we no longer banish kids from having a rightful seat in the classroom--that’s the social justice perspective I endorse, allowing the students to work with the non-disabled peers who can model excellence. Remembering that the struggle for special education came on the heels of the struggle for civil rights legislation, let’s also make sure that the seat in the classroom for those students is not the seat at the back of the bus, that the special educator is not ushering the special students to those peripheral seats so that they won’t bother the other kids up front.

We are fighting an uphill battle again. Parents, regular education teachers, specialists, legislators and administrators have to speak up, demanding in their own voices, and in coalitions of voices, that as many of the following mainstreaming structures are in place so that this era of special education as civil rights reflects the wisdom gained from the last 40 years:

  • Give each special educator no more than 2 mainstream teachers to have as partners; one partner all day is immeasurably better.
  • Give abundant common planning time.
  • Call the classroom, in speaking and in writing and on every form, by both teachers’ names.
  • Divide the teacher responsibilities for calling parents, marking papers, seating charts, and everything else that goes into each teacher feeling ownership. This is not easy to do! We also have to take into account that the special educator will carry the large burden of handling special education paperwork and meetings. But if you don’t forcibly build joint ownership into mainstreaming, you will not get mainstreaming other than in name, and there’s little special about a teacher rushing around a class putting her finger in innumerable leaks.
  • In high school, assign special educators to subjects that they know, or give them the time and training to build their capacity to teach that subject.
  • In lesson planning forms, make explicit the different roles each teacher will handle--both teachers having the responsibility to lead the full class, to work with small groups, to pull students aside for one-to-one sessions.
  • Both teachers refer to all the students as “ours.”
  • Collect data on important markers beyond standardized test scores: the number of contributions students make to a class discussion; the different jobs students take on in group work; the variety of students each child sits with and works with. If we are mainstreaming to promote social inclusion and equity, demonstrate that it is actually happening.

I am not optimistic--except that I see enough frustrated special educators who are being asked to do a fraction of what makes them special, frustrated because they know the students could be better served. Perhaps what will make us special in this coming era of education as a civil right will be our ability to speak up and organize. That’s a task worthy of some very special educators.

Jeffrey Benson is the author of many books including, Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most (ASCD, 2014), which shows educators the value of tenacity and building connections when teaching the students who most need our help. His new book, 10 Steps to Managing Change in Schools: How do we take initiatives from goals to actions? (ASCD, 2015), provides educators with a proven, practical, and broadly applicable system for implementing new practices methodically and effectively. Connect with him at his website,

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Branding Matters. Learn From the Pros Why and How
Learn directly from the pros why K-12 branding and marketing matters, and how to do it effectively.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
How to Make Learning More Interactive From Anywhere
Join experts from Samsung and Boxlight to learn how to make learning more interactive from anywhere.
Content provided by Samsung
Teaching Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: How Educators Can Respond to a Post-Truth Era
How do educators break through the noise of disinformation to teach lessons grounded in objective truth? Join to find out.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

BASE Program Site Director
Thornton, CO, US
Adams 12 Five Star Schools
Director of Information Technology
Montpelier, Vermont
Washington Central UUSD
Great Oaks AmeriCorps Fellow August 2021 - June 2022
New York City, New York (US)
Great Oaks Charter Schools
Director of Athletics
Farmington, Connecticut
Farmington Public Schools

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: January 13, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read